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Of Monitors and Mics: Creating a Great Home Recording Studio

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Why record at home? The reasons can be as diverse and detailed as modern music genres. Freedom, cost savings, and creativity are just a few of the reasons to start tracking on your own today. Having a home studio, however minimal, can simultaneously give you instant results and the luxury of more time.

Gayle Skidmore

Prolific songwriter Gayle Skidmore trained as a classical pianist, and now plays more than 20 instruments. She is currently “working on a classical piano side project, and recording at home has been invaluable. Classical music is very complex and if I didn't have a way to get my ideas recorded right away, I would never remember them.”

Songwriter Jason Perrillo has been recording and producing his own albums at home for over ten years. In the past, Perrillo had spent ”countless hours in studios and was never happy with a mix given the little time we had. When you record by yourself, it gives you time to work things out. You suddenly have so many more options.”

Stop, Drop, and Set Up Shop

Are you looking to build a home recording studio? Your goals will influence your gear selections. Skidmore states that she has a “very minimal” setup for recording at home, and that she has actually gotten rid of ProTools LE in favor of GarageBand which “suits my needs so much more as an artist just for getting my ideas down so that I can share them with my band and my engineer. My goal with recording at home is mostly to save and share my ideas rather that to release my music.”

Scott Horton

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Scott Horton provides services for new and established artists through Virtual Mix Engineer. As his studio is focused on mixing, “it is vital for me to have great monitoring and processing. I monitor through Pelonis 4288 mains, Sennheiser HD800 headphones, Forssell MDAC-2 Converters, UBK Gain Train monitor controller, Mackie MCU Pro mix controller, Oxygen 61 MIDI Keyboard, and sound absorption by GIK Acoustics.” In addition to the physical tools, “everything else is in-the-box using a custom built computer and plug-ins from Waves, Universal Audio, Slate Digital, UBK, Softube, Soundtoys, and more.”

Have Studio, Will Travel

Jane Lui

Singer-songwriter Jane Lui is always on the road, so she has assembled a very mobile setup. She finds that this solution is “best for recording wherever and whatever I want, especially for field sounds or a great room.” Rather than investing in loads of gear, she prefers to “save up money for vital pieces but keep it minimalist.” Her versatile setup includes a “Macbook Pro 15" 10.8.5, (amazing for video editing/output) running, Logic or Garageband.” Her Audio Interface is Fireface 400, and for Mics she uses a “Neumann U87, a modified Oktava MK219, and miscellaneous dynamic mics.”

Lui prefers Sennheiser HD595 headphones, and admits that she does not use monitors: “A part of me knows it's horrible, but I've never had a control-space. I'm setting up & breaking down every session, so this made me know my headphones and car speakers really well. I just adjust accordingly.” For mastering, she uses “Wavelab's Vintage Warmer on a PC laptop. That app is magic.”

Jane Lui

Singer, guitarist, and producer John Zay also likes to take his studio on the road. He “pared down my set up to be portable yet powerful. I am using a Macbook Pro 13 inch running mainly Logic Pro as well as Reason & Ableton Live. My soundcard is a Saffire pro 24 DSP VRM. I love the Saffire because it has Virtual Reference Mixing, a setting for headphones that simulates different monitor set ups. While I wouldn't use it for a final mix it is great for tweaking while I'm on the go. I also use a Line 6 JTV-69 with a POD HD500x which I connect with a S/PDIF cable. I carry 3 mic's with me, an AKG c1000s, Blue Encore 100 for vocals at shows and an old Alesis Groove Tube AM11 that was suped up by Dave Brown, a well known Mic tech in Malibu. I have a pair of Ultimate Ears Triple Fi 10 In Ear Monitors and both an M-Audio Oxygen 8 and a Keith McMillen Softstep for midi applications.” This may sound like a lot, but Zay gets around, “I've travelled with this rig on many planes and trains!”

Where to Spend in a Tight Budget

Starting to build a home studio on a very tight budget can be accomplished - but where should you invest your first, scarce dollars? If you can’t hear what you are doing, you can’t accomplish anything, so headphones or monitors are critical. Scott Horton says that the most important piece of a studio is monitoring: “You can have access to the best processing and recording chains, but if you can't accurately hear how your decisions affect the audio, then you're working blindly. Monitors and or headphones with a flat frequency response are ideal, so your decisions aren't skewed by the speakers themselves.”

Andy Oliver

Singer, songwriter and online chart topper Andy Oliver agrees that “headphones with boosted bass don't give you a very accurate sound to what most playback devices are, you get a nice sound in your headphones but not when you mix down for playback on other devices.”

Oliver remembers that he started to get a more professional sound from his home recordings by “investing in the Rode N1 and mic accessories like the shield.” He has gotten great results from this simple mic screen, “not a pop shield but for behind your box mic - it cuts out any extra room noise and deadens the sound giving you a clean vocal.” This quick fix “added depth that I couldn't get with post production reverb or by EQing the track, it made the sound everything I wanted it to sound like, a stronger signal in to reduce noise from me having to push up gain on my interface to accommodate the less professional mic.”

“A good option if you’re on a budget is a Mac mini which integrates with all your PC components,” says Zay. “I'm also really getting into the Variax with the Pod. For the price the features are stunning. Line 6 has really upped their game.”

Can’t Buy Me Love

The Slants Onstage

Some of the most important pieces of your studio can be a big investment, some are not, and some you may already have. The Slants’ Simon Tam thinks that “the most important piece is actually a good ear and having some understanding that comes with basic education.” Tam also gets great use out of “a very large whiteboard to sketch out the project management of files or channels.” Jane Lui considers her own ears to be be the most important part of recording, “It's honestly not about what you own.”

Jason Perrillo admits that the most vital part of his studio is inexpensive, it is “my metronome, keeping everything together.” Rock drummer and studio owner Tyler Chen agrees that part of creating a great result is to “make sure your drummer is prepared to nail all of your songs while following a click track.”

Jason Perrillo

Money can’t buy everything that you need, both in life and in home recording. Perrillo greatly values being careful and patient, and taking your time. After you have mixed a track, he advises that you “put it aside and then listen back. I've always said that it’s impossible to mix a song in one day. You need time for everything to settle down and then go back to work at it.”

For Absolute Beginners

Scott Horton reminds aspiring recording engineers that some things can’t be bought, “knowledge, above all gear, will take you the furthest (and is often the cheapest!). Read recording books, watch tutorial videos on YouTube, Groove3, Lynda, participate in forums such as Gearslutz and HomeRecording, and experiment hands-on. You'll learn by doing, applying the rules, and then breaking them.”

Don’t get too crazy right away - Andy Oliver cautions beginners to have some restraint, “don't try and throw every single trick you have learnt or are learning into each track you are working on.” Start with a good foundation, “get your instrument to have a clean dry signal that is a fair indication to how you would hear it. You may have learnt how to boost and normalise each thing, you may like a certain reverb setting, but throwing all your tricks at each track leaves it all sounding confused.”

When NOT to DIY

To have a great sound on a budget, you don’t have to do everything yourself. Chen offers the tip that you can “record drums at a professional studio, but the rest of your tracks at home. It is difficult to achieve great sounding drums without a good sounding room, good/correctly placed mics, good preamps and strong audio engineering skill.” Perrillo concurs that you must “make sure the drum track is great.” Zay adds to the chorus that you must “make sure the drummer has his drums tuned well.”

Chen then recommends economizing by recording guitar and bass tracks at home “without the pressure wasting studio time. After you’ve compiled the perfect takes for each song, you can choose to either use amp modeling software (such as AmpliTube) or the ‘re-amping’ process. Re-amping means that your clean guitar tracks are played back through your amp and simultaneously recorded. If you re-amp at your home studio, it allows you to spend more time dialing in the perfect guitar tone and even re-amping the same track on multiple amps.”

It is also possible to split the difference, and have “a professional studio re-amp your tracks, which takes a fraction of the time that it would take for your guitar player(s) to come into the studio and record live.”

Flex Your Mind and the Music Will Follow

Studio success can depend on more than tools and hooks. Is your mind in the right place with patience, a creative atmosphere, and the confidence you need to do well? Chen cautions that care must be taken particularly with recording vocals: “Recording studio psychology is huge with bringing out the best performances from your vocalist.” Taking care in how you communicate “to coach them without bruising their ego or upsetting them can make the difference between amazing and awful tracks.”

Recording is not always a solo effort; can you communicate effectively with your clients or bandmates? Zay proposes that a novice should “gain as much experience as you can. It's the best builder of confidence and ability. Don't just record yourself, record your friends so you can begin to understand what other’s needs and expectations are. Working with others not only helps your recording techniques but your songwriting as well because you are being exposed to a different creative process than your own.”

Zay reminds beginners that “whether you are recording yourself, your friends or a client, music is all about capturing moods and feelings.” After working with many artists, he has found that “the good ones have one thing in common: they allow themselves to be vulnerable.”

Being creative and performing is not always easy - don’t make things more difficult than they already are. Skidmore cautions that you should “make sure that there isn't too much between you and your art. If there are too many steps in between singing or playing and recording, it's easy to forget your idea. You could have a really expensive setup but have no idea how to use it properly. Just make sure that whatever you're using in your setup is conducive to creativity.”

Champagne Sounds on a Cheap Beer Budget

How does a beginner start to get professional quality results out of a new home studio? Skidmore thinks that a “beginner can sound like a pro by knowing their gear well so that they can get the best sound with what they have.” Know yourself, but also keep your ears open and “pay attention whenever you're in the studio with a good engineer and ask for advice.”

An expensive set up and a technically perfect track will not always result in a great song. Skidmore has learned that a good technical take does not always mean that “the performance is right on. When I listen back to old records from the 30's, a lot of them are scratchy recordings with all kinds of noise, but what is there is a performance that has magic too. If you've got the performance you have captured the most important thing.”

Horton recognizes that “nothing was a hit only because it sounded great. Listeners are first attracted to a SONG. Luckily, crafting a song and arrangement only takes time, and not money.”

Lui concurs that “If you're good at your craft, you won't need cool gear to sound pro. Top priority - Be good at what you do. The rest is just logistics and research.” Tam cautions, “No amount of effects software, mixing, or mastering can correct a poorly recorded sound.”

Getting Noticed in a Crowded Scene

Thanks to the web, it is easier than ever to share, promote, and find new music. In this brave new interconnected world, what are some ways that you can stand out and find fans? Oliver reminds new producers to show some respect when trying to stand out - people often try “to create a new sound or by being eccentric on stage. My advice is to look back, or look sideways. We all think no one has done what we have, but they have and you don't have to copy them, but learn from what went before.”

Tam reminds you to consider more than just the music itself, “creating a good recording is as much a marketing endeavor as it is a creative project. Artists should understand their niche, what they are trying to accomplish, and focus on creating recordings that cater to their target audience.” He agrees with Oliver that you should “use other pieces of music for reference and inspiration, but not necessarily as something to completely copy.” Tam encourages you to be inventive: “add some signature elements - whether it is a particular effect, a recording technique that can differentiate the sound of vocals or other key instrument, or even a uniquely created instrument.”

Knowing yourself is the best way to success in recording. Skidmore has learned that “the best thing that you can do for yourself is to spend time honing and perfecting your craft. Make sure that you take the time to get to know what tones and styles you like and what best fits your particular style.” This can come from your own opinions, but also seek feedback and “pay attention to the responses you get from people that you respect in the industry, and get to know your strengths.”

The right recording gear is essential to building your home studio, but knowing just what is right for you will require some experimenting and soul-searching. Knowing what you want to focus on, and what you want to avoid, will help you make the right equipment choices - no matter what your experience level is.

Tags: Recording

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